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Tales of Old-time Texas

Tales of Old-time Texas
Illustrated by Barbara Latham

A heartwarming array of twenty-eight stories filled with vivid characters, exciting historical episodes, and traditional themes.

Series: Texas Classics, The J. Frank Dobie Paperback Library

January 1955
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336 pages | 6 x 9 |

It is for good reason that J. Frank Dobie is known as the Southwest's master storyteller. With his eye for color and detail, his ear for the rhythm of language and song, and his heart open to the simple truth of folk wisdom and ways, he movingly and unpretentiously spins the tales of our collective heritages. This he does in Tales of Old-Time Texas, a heartwarming array of twenty-eight stories filled with vivid characters, exciting historical episodes, and traditional themes. As Dobie himself says: "Any tale belongs to whoever can best tell it." Here, then, is a collection of the best Texas tales—by the Texan who can best tell them.


Dobie's recollections include such classics in Lone Star State lore as the tale of Jim Bowie's knife, the legend of the Texas bluebonnet, the story of the Wild Woman of the Navidad, and the account of the headless horseman of the mustangs. Other stories in this outstanding collection regale us with odd and interesting characters and events: the stranger of Sabine Pass, the Apache secret of the Guadalupes, the planter who gambled away his bride, and the Robinhooding of Sam Bass. These stories, and many more, make Tales of Old-Time Texas a beloved classic certain to endure for generations.


  • Introduction
  • Part One
    • Corn Dodgers and San Jacinto Corn
    • The Wild Woman of the Navidad
    • The Dream That Saved Wilbarger
    • Bigfoot Wallace and the Hickory Nuts
    • Jim Bowie's Knife
    • The Robinhooding of Sam Bass
  • Part Two
    • Northers, Drouths and Sandstorms
    • Frozen Inside a Buffalo Hide
    • The Cold-Nosed Hounds
    • Honey in the Rock
  • Part Three
    • The Texas Bluebonnet
    • The Headless Horseman of the Mustangs
    • A Ranch on the Nueces Desperate Rides
    • The Planter Who Gambled Away His Bride
  • Part Four
    • The Panther's Scream
    • Bears Are Intelligent People
    • Old Bill, Confederate Ally
  • Part Five
    • Colonel Abercrombie's Mole
    • The Green Powder Keg In a Drouth Crack
    • The Stranger of Sabine Pass
    • Longworth's Vicey-versey Map
    • Guarded by Rattlesnakes
    • The Apache Secret of the Guadalupes
    • O. Henry's Treasure Hunt
    • Where Did Sam McFarland Cross the Colorado?
    • The Mezcla Man
  • Notes and Credits
  • Index

Now that I have gathered together these tales of my land and people, they seem inadequate. Put down on paper, they lack for me the zest, the reality, the flavor that I drank in as a listener to the original tellers. Print for the eyes of strangers evaporates the humanity with which a tale told in genial companionship is saturated. Some wit has said that the translation of prose from one language to another is a betrayal; of poetry, an assassination. The translation of telling into printing always changes a tale; it may improve it—in the way Shakespeare turned an Italian melodrama into Romeo and Juliet; but the process of transplanting can easily wither earthy freshness. I have none of the scientific folklorist's reverence for the oral original of a tale—unless the original is masterly; it generally needs bettering. My custom is to try to tell a tale as the original teller should have told it. Any tale belongs to whoever can best tell it. When I reflect on where and how and when and with whom I heard rollicky old Bigfoot Wallace's yarn of his hickory-nut armor, and then read my printed version, I remember an incident in the life of Sir Walter Scott. He had ridden low and ridden high taking down ballads from the lips of people in his "ain countrie." After he printed them in the Border Minstrelsy, he took a copy to an old woman of the Highlands. "Thank ye, sir," she said, "but they were made for singing and nae for reading." The best tales told by accomplished nonwriting tellers are made for telling and nae for printing.


The one quality in most of these stories that satisfies me is their failure to be "action-packed." The tempo of the earth is not the tempo of action. The tempo of the earth-dwellers to whom I have been listening for many years is the tempo of growing grass, of a solitary buzzard sailing over a valley, of the wind from the south in April, of the lengthening of a tree's shadow on a summer afternoon, of the rise and fall of flames in a fireplace on a winter night; it is the tempo of a staked horse grazing out from camp in darkness, of a coyote greeting moonrise, of a bobwhite making dawn more serene, of a lizard in the sun waiting for a fly, and of cows chewing their cuds after they have drunk; it is the tempo of a ranchman sitting on the front gallery and looking for hours and hours into space with latent hope for a cloud. This is not to say that folks who belong to the earth do not vivify action. They do, but somehow, in the phrase of Reed Anthony, cowman, they always appear to have "ample time." They may hum, but their humming is not the humming of industry. They may be propertied, but their minds are not on drilling the guts out of the earth, damming up rivers, laying pipelines across continents, converting the elements into bombs to annihilate nations. They may run, but they have a genius for soaking in and oozing out.




One time a buzzard was circling around and around, as deliberate as thought or greed in chiseling the features of a human being, when a hawk came sweeping by.


"Brother Buzzard," the hawk paused to say, "you'll never get anything to eat lazing around up here this way. Come with me and we'll catch something."


"Thank you, Brother Hawk," the buzzard said, "but I await the will of God."


And the buzzard kept sailing and sailing, high and unhurried, while the hawk rushed on his way. After a while he streaked back.


"Still waiting, I see," he said.


"Still waiting on the will of God," the buzzard said.


The buzzard sailed on in majestic repose and the hawk streaked on with rapine intent. A third time their paths crossed. "Old Slowpoke," the hawk taunted, "I'm going to show you something. You see that sparrow away down yonder sitting on a sharp stob of a dead post oak?"


"Yes, I see the sparrow on the sharp stob and I see a thousandlegs inching along on the ground right under him," the buzzard said.


"Well, watch me get meat," the hawk said.


"Good hunting, Brother Hawk," the buzzard answered. He just kept on sailing and awaiting the will of God.


The hawk stretched out for a dive at the sparrow. He folded his wings and shot through the air like a guided missile. Just as he approached his target the sparrow darted and the hawk, by some error, hit full against the sharp stob. It went clear through his side and into his heart. He fluttered on the stob a minute and then fell lifeless to the ground beside the inching-along thousandlegs.


Meanwhile the buzzard was still circling slow and even, but his circles soon grew shorter in diameter and he spiraled downward until he lit on the ground beside the dead hawk.


He had awaited the will of God.




That buzzard had the tempo of the tales in this book—tales that belong to a patch of roasting ears guarded from bears by an old hound, to contemplators of tracks made by the unseen Wild Woman of the Navidad, to Colonel Abercrombie sitting in the shade of a chinaberry tree waiting for a mole to pop out of the ground, and to many another representative of long-gone life.


It is better to have a just sense of values unsatisfied than to have a cheap sense of values fulfilled, and so I have left Roy Bean out of this book. There are more yarns about him perhaps than about any other Texas character, but he was essentially a publicity-hunting impostor and vulgarian, and striving to make a hero out of him only adds to the hardupness of Texas for heroes possessing the elements of nobility. I could have put Pecos Bill in also. His name was unknown until Tex O'Reilly, a newspaperman, put him into the Century magazine (October, 1923), claiming him as a folk character. Later, when somebody else wrote a book about him, O'Reilly sued for money on the grounds of plagiarism, claiming that he had invented Pecos Bill. He had. Now all the school children at Pecos, Texas, can tell Pecos Bill yarns—most of them as mechanically constructed as the totals out of an adding machine. They represent the typical American tall tale, which is little more than an adding machine product. I have told tall tales here about northers, sandstorms, and the like, but I'm bored with the Roy Bean-Pecos Bill sausage-links.


Classifying all traditional tales as "tall" shows the debasing effect of jargon on the perceptive faculties. Properly, a tall tale is one of sheer exaggeration. It is usually short of wit and devoid of humanity. It is tolerable only when it brings out characteristics of situation, place, person or some other subject. The most ingenious tall tale ranks below any good anecdote of character, though the almanac-minded manufacturers of humor have driven the character anecdote off the air and out of films in favor of their product. Anecdotes about Abraham Lincoln are as traditional as "Barbara Allen." I considered putting a selection of anecdotes about Sam Houston, Brit Bailey, Pamela Mann, W 6 Wright and other Texians in this book, but they didn't seem to fit. (Texian, along with Texican, was used before Texan became common. The name still carries a kind of out-of-the-oldrock connotation.)


Jokes, laws, songs, stories, all forms of human expression except those bedded deep in human nature and truth, become obsolete. Thirty-one years have passed since I brought out as contributor and editor—with the help of Bertha McKee Dobie, who still "o'erlooks each line"—Legends of Texas. It soon went out of print. I took from it whatever legends about lost mines and buried treasure were worth taking and wove them into Coronado's Children; then for a long time I kept on expecting to revise and extend the remaining material. When I finally came to write the present book, I found that what had once interested me—more historically than narratively—now bored me. For changed me as well as for changed times, the sentimentality of lover's-leap stories has become inane; the saccharinities of miracles and pious doves wither the intellect; the sacerdotal humbuggery of the Lady in Blue and other borrowings from the Middle Ages denies the fact that imagination and reason are integrated. This generation is not, of course, less sentimental, less credulous or more realistic than preceding generations. It is merely the directions taken by sentimentality, credulity and unrealism that change. Anybody who can believe that Formosa is China can believe anything: that the stars are the forget-me-nots of the angels or that screw worms can be "talked" out of cows by quoting a verse from Isaiah. Unadulterated superstition is the lowest and dullest form of folklore. Imaginative power, not superstition, makes Hamlet's ghost harrow up thy soul and translates Queen Mab of the fairies into a reality a thousand times realer than any female of the human species pictured in a thousand Sunday newspapers.


Well, I have gone in one canyon and come out another. The way to spoil a story is to talk about it rather than tell it.



It was late in January, after repeated northers had frozen the ground; yet this particular day was mild and fair—too warm and still for the season. The inactivity of the prairie dogs indicated that they had little trust in the mildness and fairness. John Rotman and two other hunters out on the plains to bring in a load of buffalo meat did not trust the weather, either. The night before and on after sunrise they had heard the long, deep howls of lobo wolves on every side of their camp.


As the hunters rode away from their big wagon and the thin blue smoke of burning buffalo chips, they had no fear of not getting back ahead of the blizzard. Their only concern was locating a bunch of buffaloes. Their plan was to kill a number, as close together as possible, and then, after gutting them, to bring up the wagon and butcher out the carcasses, taking only the choicest meat and the tallow. There were no signs of Indians. At this time of year the Comanches and Kiowas generally kept within reach of their camps in Palo Duro Canyon and other sheltered places.


Circling so as not to get too far from camp, the hunters remarked that buffaloes seemed as scarce as Indians. It was midafternoon before they sighted an animal. Then they saw the tailend of a vast herd walking steadily south, several miles away. After galloping behind the animals a distance, Rotman told companions that he would ride ahead to one side and try to push some of the buffaloes into a rolling, uneven country where the other two men would have a better chance to shoot.


"Dark is going to come early tonight," one of the other men remarked, and all glanced north, where an atmosphere rather than a cloud, a grayness more than a blackness, thickened the horizon. The sun had a yellow glaze over it. Hardly had the men separated before there was a stir in the sea of grass. Again, all was still, and the angle between the one lone rider galloping southwestward and the two going southeastward broadened. And then with incredible swiftness, even though its forerunners had given warning, the blizzard struck. Before he knew it, Rotman could no longer see the buffaloes. He untied his old Confederate overcoat from behind his saddle and buttoned it on. Camp was north of east. His horse, as well as he, knew that; but only with the greatest difficulty could he make him quarter into the wind. The air was filled now with driving sleet and snow There was no longer any sun, just a dimness soon to turn into blackness.


A man could not stay out in a night like this and live, unless kept moving. Rotman decided that the only thing to do was turn his back square to the storm and keep moving until he got to a break or until daylight came. And where on those illimitable plains was any break? Rotman got down to warm himself with walking. His feet were already blocks of wood. He had no saddle scabbard, but, like other men of that day, carried his long rifle across the front of his saddle in a sling. When he got down, he took the rifle with him, in gloved hand.


With back to the storm and eyes protected by a widebrimmed hat of rawhide that had been waterproofed with smoked tallow, Rotman could still see perhaps two horse-lengths ahead. Suddenly he found himself almost against a giant buffalo bull, facing him, standing still. Because of the very heavy hair on head and shoulders, buffaloes, unlike cattle, stand facing a storm. Before the animal could move, Rotman sent a ball into his heart.


Now he had something that has kept many a man from freezing to death on the plains. He had the warmest robe afforded by nature. In that temperature it would have been impossible to skin a cold animal, but he slit the buffalo's belly and warmed his hands in the vitals. He was an expert skinner and soon had the hide laid out on the ground, hair side up. His horse stood humped to one side. He staked him to the buffalo bull's horns. He and that horse seemed to be the only living creatures in an Arctic blizzard over a blind world of blotted-out plains.


He lay down on the hide and, rolling over and over, wrapped himself in it. Who can describe the sensation of warmth driving out cold that makes a man's back ache, numbs his feet and hands and stings his nose and ears raw? Rotman gradually grew warm. He thought of his horse with a pang. He wondered about his two comrades. He drifted into a drowsiness comforting like raw eggs in hot sweetened milk spiked with whisky to a cold man just come to fireplace warmth, like the feel on a frosty morning to a boy's bare feet standing where a cow has lain warming the earth all night.


When John Rotman awoke he felt, rather than saw, that it was daylight. He had been aroused by sounds he could not at first identify. He started to raise up but could not budge. Then he heard gnawing mixed with wolf snarls. Attempting to unwind himself from the buffalo hide, he comprehended that it was frozen as stiff as boards. No mummy swathed in the tombs of Egypt could be more effectively bound from head to foot. He had enclosed his head well, leaving only a small opening forair. He attempted to yell, but his muffled voice must have sounded very dimly to the wolves. Soon their gnawing and snarling were louder than ever. He guessed they were chewing on the fresh buffalo hide. In the hasty skinning some slabs of meat had been left on it.


It might be debated whether lobos would attack a man in motion, but a hungry pack coming to human flesh wrapped around by buffalo hide would hardly hesitate. Rotman made all sorts of efforts to scare the beasts away. They kept on gnawing and clawing. No doubt they had already eaten the buffalo carcass. Cold will make wolves, just as it will make man and other animals, savagely hungry. Finally, losing some of his own skin in the effort—for even the hairy side of the buffalo hide now had iron-hard wrinkles—Rotman worked his right hand up to the air opening in front of his forehead. His hand was utterly futile at increasing the size of the opening. His knife was at his belt, but he could not get to it.


Now the wolves were tugging their bundle this way and that. After a while Rotman's cramped hand felt itself full of hairs. Involuntarily it clenched shut. There was a jerk, and Rotman deduced that he had a strong hold on the tail of a lobo. The lobo, in twisting around, fighting for a place among other lobos, had somehow put its tail into the opening. The jerk made Rotman and the lobo both stronger. Instantly Rotman felt himself moving and soon he was moving fast, his hand holding tight.


Primitive people make fire by friction. Friction that will ignite wood will thaw ice. Within a short time Rotman was conscious of a loosening of his bindings. Presently he was jerked out of the unrolling buffalo skin. He turned the tail loose, The lobo never looked back. Taking a survey of the world around him, Rotman saw that it was covered with white, that snow had ceased to fall, that the wind was laid, and that he had been dragged down a slope into one of those depressions common to the plains country.


As he walked up the drag-trail, he saw his horse, standing still. Too still, he thought. The horse, in fact, was stone dead, frozen upright in his tracks. No doubt the lobos would have devoured the horse had they not been diverted by the buffalo hide episode. Picking up his rifle, Rotman started toward camp. About noon he was sighted by his two partners. They had made it to camp the night before and left at daylight to hunt him.


There are stories of various men being bound up in a frozen buffalo hide, but this is the one I like best. It seems much more reasonable and credible to me than some of the others.

Ludwig Baron von Roeder of Prussia and his wife had nine sons, all over six feet tall--and all restless under military tyranny. In 1832 Sigismund, the wild one of the breed, fought a duel at the University of Breslau with the Prince of Prussia and killed him.


The fact that the duel was fair prevented the king from putting Sigismund to death but not from sentencing him to life imprisonment. After he had been in prison about a year, his father went to the king for audience.


"What do you want?" the king glared.


"You know what I want," the baron replied.


"No," the king bellowed, "I will not."


"Is there no condition at all?" the baron asked.


'"Yes, one condition only. I will release your son if you and your family will leave Germany forever."


"How much time will you give us to leave?"


"One year."


The baron began at once to sell off his lands and other properties, keeping a few of his best hogs, chickens, horses, and cattle take to the new home. Mexico was at this time offering hospitality to foreigners, and the baron set his compass for Texas, then a part of Mexico. Several other Prussian families joined the von Roeders in preparation for emigrating. They chartered an English ship, and as the end of the year approached, loaded it with livestock, household gear, carts, buggies, tools, farm implements, clothing, food for a long voyage, plows and whisky stills. The day before they were to sail, a prison guard escorted Sigismund von Roeder to the ship.


It was headed for the mouth of the Brazos River, but a Gulf hurricane drove it to Galveston Island. There the first child of the colony was born. The Baroness von Roeder was troubled with insomnia, and she had her piano landed so that she could play it at night and keep others from sleeping. People danced to its music. In his capital at San Felipe de Austin on the Brazos, Stephen F. Austin heard of these Germans stranded on Galveston Island. He sent an agent offering them lands out of his wide grant. They investigated, saw the fertile soil and the great abundance of game, and brought their ship and its holdings to the mouth of the Brazos for unloading. They settled around Industry.


Frontier conditions were not conducive to making Sigismund von Roeder tamer. He learned to substitute Bowie knife for sword, but still wore his rapier. He rode and hunted with young men who slept with their guns and relied on them to enforce their democratic ideas. Some were hard gamblers, more were hard drinkers.


One morning about a dozen of the Sigismund von Roeder crowd assembled for a celebration at the plantation home of Benjamin Buckingham on the Brazos. It was not a mansion but was more ample than most of the log houses. The owner had just returned from Kentucky with a bride. She was beautiful and she was rare in that world of young men. They were making festival to honor her, but after the hard corn whisky began to flow free and she saw that an especial amount of it was flowing into her husband, she withdrew from the crowd. Soon the celebrants turned to cards. Benjamin Buckingham was foremost in turning a social game into one for stakes.


The stakes began low. As they rose, all players but Buckingham and von Roeder dropped out. Von Roeder was doing most of the winning. He proposed a limit to the bets, but Buckingham, growing more reckless with each deal, called for the sky. After he had lost all his money, he began betting his mules, horses, oxen, then his slaves. Every time he lost a unit of these chattels, he made out a bill of sale. His opponent stacked the bill of sale under a red brick made from valley earth.


At noon the onlookers ate beef and wild turkey, corn pones and greens, cooked by a slavewoman in the log kitchen out in the yard to the rear of the main house. The only pause made by the gamblers was for another drink. Paper slips representing buggy, wagon, plows, harness, race horses, saddles and other personal property piled up under the red brick. Buckingham's friends begged him to stop.


"I will not stop," he shouted in frenzy. "Luck will change directly. You will see."


"I'll quit when Buckingham says quit," von Roeder said. As winner, according to the code, he was honor-bound to keep on playing, giving the loser a chance to win back until the loser cried a halt.


The shadows outside were long when Buckingham began to put up the deeds to his lands. Against the tract on which the house stood, von Roeder staked everything under the red brick. He won.


There was a pause and a bitter oath from Buckingham. In the fading light a white-haired Negro brought in candles, set them on the table, went out, brought in a blazing pine knot and lit them. Every eye was on von Roeder, but nobody was saying a word.


As the old slave withdrew, the bride entered and placed her hand on her husband's arm.


"Come, Benjamin," she said. "It is time to quit. You are tired out."


"And that ain't all," said one brazen young man.


"You mean I am broke?" Buckingham yelled.


While his bride waited in a silence intensified by every man present, he strode to a cabinet. He took a paper out of a drawer, walked back to the table, and laid it down between the candles.


"That," he said, "will cover everything under your brick."


Von Roeder spread the paper out. It was Buckingham's marriage license.


"Only with the lady's consent," he said.


Maybe there was bitterness in her smile, but it was a smile of assent.


Once more the cards were shuffled, dealt, played. It was a quick game. As von Roeder reached for this last document to add to the papers under the red brick, Buckingham reached for one of the pistols he wore and fired. He missed. As he raised the second pistol in his brace, von Roeder's sword pierced his heart.


It happened that an alcalde lived near. All agreed that nothg would be touched, which is still the legal practice in Mexico, until his arrival. That was within a short time.


The alcalde ruled that the killing was in self-defense. As the body of the dead man was borne out on a plank, the alcalde's voice rang in question:


"Do you, Barbara Buckingham, take this man, Sigismund von Roeder?"


In those days marriages in Texas were often made by contract. Von Roeder sold the plantation he had won and took the woman he had won and moved west. Descendants of the two are numerous in southwest Texas today.